Making Indirect Land Use Change Go Away

Source: By Jim Lane, Biofuels Digest • Posted: Thursday, January 15, 2015

As the specter of falling oil prices spooks the sector, here’s good news from the Land of ILUC — a shocker study pointing a way towards mitigating or eliminating that infamous scourge of carbon-scoring for biofuels.

There are two types of stories in the world of biofuels. There are the fascinating stories we can’t wait to read. And there are stories about Indirect Land Use Change. It’s easier to get guys to watch An Affair to Remember than read about the latest in ILUC.

Why? It’s tedious and immature, the science of it, wrapped around ancient datasets that predate biofuels and global equilibrium economic models that were not ultimately designed for the task.

And ILUC generally just annoys biofuels producers — because it penalizes the production of biofuels because of a hypothesized indirect effect they have on emissions,: the idea is that increased corn demand in the US cause a shortfall in soybeans, causing more planting of soybeans in Brazil, causing the conversion of cattle grazing land to soybeans, causing the conversion of Amazonian rainforest to cattle grazing land —  thereby releasing carbon into the sky.

Here’s the theory:



The adding of “indirect land use change” effects to biofuels is a significant factor in reducing the effectiveness of biofuels in low carbon fuel standards — and in keeping some pathways from qualifying as advanced biofuels (50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions).

Here’s the objection, from industry, that the theory doesn’t predict an outcome in real life:


Hope arrives from The Netherlands

But, today’s news is not about defining it, or measuring it, or describing the controversy around it.

It is about the mitigation — possibly the elimination of it — which should be about as exciting to the biofuels community as the eradication of plague. Turns out that researchers at the University of Utrecht have been hard at work on defining the conditions under which biofuels can be produced at large scale without triggering ILUC.

Their ILUC prevention project was conducted in 2013 and 2014 to answer: How can ILUC (risks) be mitigated? How can ILUC mitigation be quantified? How may ILUC (mitigation) be regulated?

They write:

The key ILUC prevention measures studied in this project were above- baseline yield increases and cultivation of currently under-utilized land. The ILUC prevention measures were quantified for four case studies by assessing how much additional biofuels can be produced with low risk of causing ILUC (hereinafter referred to as the low-ILUC-risk potential). 

The study found that ILUC is a risk that can be mitigated and even prevented if the right practices are put in place, in particular when biofuels are produced from crops grown as a result of increasing agricultural crop yields and on currently under-utilized land. An additional option for mitigating ILUC that the study refers to is the potential ILUC mitigation effects from animal feed co-production from biofuels. In 2013 the UNFAO revealed that the use of animal feed co-products from EU biofuels production reduced global land use by about 3 million hectares, an area the size of Belgium.

The case studies?

Miscanthus ethanol in Lublin province, Poland. Corn ethanol in Hungary. Rapeseed biodiesel in Eastern Romania, and crude palm oil in North-East Kalimantan, Indonesia.

The researchers conclude:

The case studies show that large amounts of additional biofuels can be produced with a low risk of causing ILUC. In the high scenario, already 1.3% of the total energy use (or 13% of the renewable energy use) in road transport in the EU in 2020 could be met by low-ILUC-risk biofuels produced in only the three European case studies investigated in this project. Thus, low-ILUC-risk biofuels produced from these three EU case studies alone could meaningfully contribute to sustainable biofuels in the EU in 2020. 

Expanding from the case studies

The researchers add:

In addition, other countries in Europe and elsewhere have untapped low- ILUC-risk potentials that could be further explored and mobilized (e.g., mixed production systems in Western Europe such a double cropping, pasture intensification in Latin America, yield increases in Africa). Thus, ILUC as determined in economic models is not an irreversible fact, but is a risk that can be mitigated and in many cases even be prevented. 

The magic factors

  • Stimulating increasing productivity and resource efficiency in the agricultural sector through support and incentives schemes, including access to capital and technology, and capacity building.
  • Providing support and incentives for production on currently under- utilized land.
  • Promoting land zoning that excludes high carbon stock, high conservation value and important ecosystem service areas from conversion to any agricultural use, and incentivize forest maintenance.

Under-utilized land is the cure.

The team writes:

“In the Eastern European case studies, increased yields contribute in most scenarios to over 75% of the potential. In the Indonesian case study, use of under-utilized land contributes to over 90% of the potential.”

Results hailed in the EU

“Biofuels produced with low or no risk of Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC) can contribute substantially to achieving the EU’s 2020 climate & energy targets in transport, according to a new study published by the University of Utrecht today.

ePURE Secretary-General Robert Wright said: “These findings are a game-changer in the ILUC debate. There is massive potential in Europe to produce sustainable biofuels with little or no ILUC impacts but we need to realise these benefits – more jobs, better resource efficiency and reducing GHGs in transport. Low-ILUC-risk biofuels are a win-win and should be excluded from any cap. Policy makers should identify a means to enable low-ILUC-risk biofuels to contribute to the EU’s energy and climate targets for transport.”

The study can be found here.